Business concept - Planning for future events.

It’s the end of the year, and if you’re like most communications pros, you’re recovering from your holiday party, considering your budget items and deciding where to allocate spends for the year ahead. During your year-end budget analysis, you may be called to question where a large chunk of money is going especially for your “PR Agency Fee”. This line item can be listed without detail and can be priced well over six figures in some cases. The price can leave readers like you scratching their heads, wondering what the ROI is and most importantly, wondering who is collecting this fee? If you’re in the dark, then you will probably begin to review your agency, and in some cases, look for a new one altogether. Guess what? You’re not alone and here I am, a PR agency gal writing to tell you-you should question your agency every year, and in fact, you should question several things about the relationship.

If you’re in charge of validating your organization’s PR spend, you’re probably wondering how much your PR program was really worth in 2016, and that’s completely natural since PR usually reveals its value over a longer period of time. During the evaluation process, many organizations ask: Did my brand recognition grow? Are more influencers aware of my company/brand? Have we received the press attention we think we deserve? Do I feel like my agency “gets” what we’re trying to accomplish?

Every year, agencies are asked these questions by their clients as a byproduct of a much bigger, much more impactful question. A question that yields an answer which can help you when deciding to retain your agency or to embark on finding a new one. It’s simple: did we hire the right agency for us? Seems like a loaded question, but the answer can be a simple “yes” or “no” if you consider the following:

  • Who is running our account? Ask who carries out the PR program’s tactical execution, it’s important. It’s important because a common complaint organizations have about PR agencies is that senior talent will be involved in the new business pitch, but that the everyday nuts and bolts will be executed solely by junior staff members as soon as the working agreement is signed. Then, the organization notices the VPs & directors are never seen again (unless there is a crisis of course). Sound like a situation you’re familiar with? To get ahead of this complaint, push for transparency: ask your agency how many billable hours senior talent is spending on your account, and ask which tasks each team member are responsible for. You may be surprised by the answer. If you do want a more top-heavy presence, be prepared for a rate hike.
  • How will we be billed? Agencies execute two billing styles: either bill- by- the hour/project or bill by a monthly retainer where a specific scope of work is covered. However, your needs will shift and your agency must be nimble enough to handle incoming, unplanned requests from you while also being mindful of their scope-of-work. While the agency should absolutely be compensated for their time if it is out of scope, you should feel confident that your agency team has the strategic mindset to speak up and tell you where the priorities lie. See the bullet above; usually, senior talent will have the experience to know when and how to pivot, so if you don’t hear those people speaking up, that’s a red flag. Keep in mind, you may not agree with their recommendation, but they’re the pros and have your best interest at heart. If an agency works on something for months and fails to deliver results or feedback regarding how to improve, however, it’s time to call it quits.
  • What does success look like to you? The agency you choose will be an extension of your overall communications department- and that’s a big deal. Agencies are a bit like fraternities/sororities because their origins are the same but their values/reputations/styles can vary, so you have to make sure you hire an agency with an approach that is aligned with your organization’s priorities. A good way to determine if you’re aligned is by identifying your PR goals, then ensuring your agency can support those goals. For example: is your goal to have higher visibility on social media platforms? Make sure the agency presents an action plan that includes detail on what they will do, and what they need to be successful. Is your goal to receive national media attention? Make sure they tell you what you need (specifically) to get it- if it’s data or a spokesperson or access to exclusive insights, they should tell you what national media members prefer for their stories. One important note: if they promise top-tiered media coverage without giving insight as to how: RUN!

Not all PR is equal, and while there are many tasks that fall under the PR umbrella (media relations (trade vs. national), speaking engagements, social media. content marketing, influencer relations etc.), there aren’t PR pros who are experts at all service lines. Ask your agency where its employees shine and what their expectations for the PR program are. If they aren’t forthcoming about how they work and what they do to make sure their strategy is effective, then their pitch to you is probably just fluff.

In order to have a successful relationship with a PR agency, you have to allow them to become your strategic partner. To do this, you have to ask the right questions which should identify if they understand your business and what it’s trying to achieve. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to PR so when hiring an agency you have to trust that your team will deliver in ways that impact your organization the most. While high-target media relations hits will always be part of the equation, the shifting media landscape offers PR pros many opportunities to make an impact (good news for all of us!).

If you’re reconsidering the relationship with your current agency, or simply feel like you don’t know enough, this PR pro strongly suggests you start forming a deeper relationship with your agency team. Get to know them, learn about who is staffing your account, learn what makes them tick, ask what they envision for your brand, and most importantly- understand how they will help elevate you in the year ahead.